Small Wars Journal

West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate

West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate by Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times.

... the argument is whether the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan - the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools and government - is dead.



Wed, 05/30/2012 - 12:11pm

There is an argument to be made that Western Civilization, at least, has been working this issue in a manner similar to Bill C's description for sometime now (well before the centralized planning efforts of fm 3-24). Niall Ferguson does a great job of discussing the 'six killer apps of western civilization' in a Ted Talk at:…

He also has a recent program on PBS which goes beyond the typical military prism on this topic

Bill C.,

None of our current doctrines, including our CT, COIN, and Stability Operations doctrines tells us how to facilitate societal change and modernize a state to become mini us. Our COIN doctrine, despite its many shortfalls, provides a proposed method for defeating an insurgency. Seems we forgot all about defeating the insurgency though, and instead we are pursuing national policies that propose exactly what you state, yet we don’t have a doctrine for transforming a society and modernizing it. We don’t have one because we don’t know how to do this, nor do we think it is an appropriate military mission. In lieu of doctrine we unfortunately have a lot of bad pseudoscience based on unfounded assumptions that are embraced as facts by a number of senior leaders with little critical thought, and now these ideas are infecting our younger ranks. I guess that is the beauty of faith, you don’t need evidence that something works or exists, you just need to believe it.

I guess an argument could be made that we need a whole of government doctrine for doing exactly what you suggest our COIN doctrine is (but isn’t IMO), which is a process for societal transformation and modernization. I suspect that when the authors actually develop the draft that they’ll hit brick walls when they try to get it approved. Reviewers will correctly point out that this doctrine is un-American, dangerous, and a number of other assorted negative adjectives. Yet, when it is the result of mission creep directed by policy wonks, we just row on and no one seriously questions it until a decade later? How does that happen?

The easiest way for me to understand and address the current counterinsurgency doctrine is to understand it, and to address it -- not so much as "counterinsurgency," per se -- but, instead, as opposition to our goal of state and societal transformation.

Thus, the overall/overarching goal would seem to be -- not to defeat the insurgency, per se -- but to use the excuse, the opening, the opportunity presented by the insurgency as a means to press even harder at transforming these states and societies along western lines.

This being the case, let me re-phrase the central question so that it might become more consistent with my line of thought above:

Considering the problems, results, etc., presented in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, has the current strategy, methods, etc., proven to be a viable way to defeat those who would stand in the way of our achieving our goals (the old political, economic and social systems of these states and societies removed; our own political, economic and social systems put in their place; and the population happy with, accepting of and successfully operating within these changes)?

If the answer to this central question is "Yes," then we would seem to be good to go.

If, however, the answer to this question is "No," then its back to the drawing board for us re: ways and means to deal with those who would oppose us in transforming their state and society along western lines.

Bill M.

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 4:49pm

In reply to by G Martin

I recall one of the original messages that went out regarding the COIN manual rewrite that caused me to lose all interest. It stated something along the lines of, "we" think got it basically right, so we're not looking to rewrite it, but simply add some lessons learned since it was first written. I guess that keeps simple for the action officers, but doesn't do much for improving our nation's military doctrine. Instead of reconsidering the doctrine they focused on TTPs.

Based on your comment, it sounds like they stuck to that guidance. If you're going into the discussion with such restrictive guidance, then at most you're only putting a little polish on the existing paradigm, and if that is all that happened then we simply created the illusion that we're a learning organization. Worse it sounds like there was a mandate that prevented any attempt to learn.

I share your fear about the lack of creativity, but more so I fear we have fallen victim to our own propaganda (apparently the only target audience we can effectively influence is ourselves) about how well we're doing. Pretty soon we'll all start putting stickers on our cars stating "we got it right", which will be just as meaningless as the feel good stickers that read, "my kid is an honor student" (along with the other 200 other kids in his class).

G Martin

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 4:16pm

I would agree that our strategic and operational art capabilities are wanting. We seem to think that we can dictate a tactical/operational paradigm and it will fit all strategies. That we can connect a strategic objective to those tactics simply by extending the power point block arrow across the ppt slide. There is little logic or critical thought from what I've seen towards how to craft a strategy, distribute forces in time and space, and thus help guide the mostly successful tactics we employ. Instead we fool ourselves into thinking our great tactics and pre-formatted operational construct will win the day.

The same debates took place during the COIN manual re-write conference. Unfortunately we are chained to the paradigms that ruled the first manual. Although many noted the need to move beyond- we are unable to get much further than the chain will allow. I fear an utter lack of creativity in our military today- or, at least no taste for it in the current politicized environment.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 4:10pm

In reply to by kilgore_nobiz

Completely agreed with the "sad fact". But the interagency/whole of government approach is part and parcel of the problem. A council of bureaucrats is no better than a Council of Colonels at debating or designing strategy. We as a government do in fact suck at strategy, but mostly because we consistently fail to recognize that organizations do not lead, they follow. And in the absence of deliberate leadership inertia becomes the aimless leader.

Just like a horse in full gallop, the only time they will change course is when they see a tree immediately in their path at the last second, one tree at a time. They, just like the horse, will never realize that the reason they are running into trees is because they rode into a forest. For that the horse needs a rider giving it direction, guiding it around the forest long before stepping into it. We lack strategic leaders with the delegated power to act on the political goals of the elected leaders. Every eschelon is a riderless horse leading other riderless horses. (I am generalizing here on strategy, not on tactical leadership. Killing people and breaking things effectively we lead quite well.)

The interagency pow-wow model we are so fond of is part of what gives us our eternal confusion about what exactly it is we are doing. Diplomats and aid workers are just as specialized as any soldier or marine at what they do. They are just as buried in doctrine, habit, and culture as we are. The distinguishing feature is that they never have nor will they ever be the prime movers in a situation where direct control over land and people is called for. That will always be us, as it has been since the day of the Roman legionary forts. As much as we want to pass the buck and share the burden, it isn't ours to pass.

The only alternative to direct governance (i.e. kill what is there and replace it) is action by proxy, where the diplomats and IC types come in handy. Afghanistan 2001-2004 was that. Except we constantly find ourselves judging that we need better proxies so instead of working with what is on the ground we keep insisting on tearing down what is there and building it from scratch, in our image, e.g. Afghanistan 2005 - Present; de-Baathification. Instead of staying on a trodden path of what is already there we rush into a forest trailblazing and then are perpetually surprised by all the trees in our way; all the while claiming that it will be better than staying on the path.

The USG is weak on strategy for many reasons. My tours through State, DHS, and DOD have convinced me that this weakness is a result of leaderlessness born of the way we conceive of ligitimate action, liability, authority, and competent leadership (in reality, not in books on leadership). Our departmental and personnel structures reinforce these. We are extraordinary technocrats. But that's about all that can be said.


Mon, 05/28/2012 - 1:06pm

I think this article indirectly highlights the sad fact the United States is horrible at strategy, regardless whether it is regular or irregular warfare. The main problem is we see everything as a military problem and send the hammer out to put screws into place. Where are the other elements of national power? Where are the other agencies in Washington. Yes, I know State has some presence in Afghanistan, but it's still relying too heavily on the military. Strategic thinking requires a civil-military partnership and COIN is the sort of warfare that needs that relationship probably more than any other. We have a divided political establishment more concerned with the election cycle than anything else. Until we figure out how to properly provide all of the things our civilian entities can do we are going to continue watching the military fumble around these kinds of tasks.

Bill M.

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 12:55pm

Seems there is some confusion over what is being debated, the doctrine or the policy. Colonel Meese claims that COIN, “was broadly successful in being able to have the Iraqis govern themselves.” Maybe, but was that the only option to facilitate Iraqis governing themeselves? As soldiers we can comment on the policies, but we are obligated to salute and move out to execute them to the best of our ability. As Gian stated, that is our duty. What we're professionally obligated to do is develop appropriate doctrine and constantly challenge and rechallenge it. Our COIN doctrine, perhaps more than other doctrine we have developed needs to be challenged. Our one size fits all approach of "clear, hold, and build," has not demonstrated success beyond tactical victories that are often erased when the tide of change comes back in. It well past time to stop embracing this doctrine with a religious like zeal, and seriously question its shortfalls. While I frequently disagree with Gian, I'm glad our cadets were exposed to contrary opinion and that West Point encourages these debates. Hopefully they will now go into this conflict with both eyes open and make their own observations based on their experience instead of relying on dogma.

Ken White

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 11:04am

One should acknowledge the fact that the general purpose forces will never do counterinsurgency at all well -- nor should they be able to do so. Given that, with due respect to all the Colonels 'involved' in this debate, I think they're rather badly missing the point. That point is really summed up by the last two paragraphs in the linked article:<blockquote>"To John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Iraq, wrote a book about counterinsurgency and now teaches at the United States Naval Academy, American foreign policy should “ensure that we never have to do this again.”</blockquote>

<blockquote>Does counterinsurgency work? “Yes,” he said. “Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”</blockquote>No, it is not a different question.

It is <u>the</u> question.


It's been a year or two since we discussed these issues in your office in Kandahar.

This piece of your comment: "There must either be some form of compromise and reconciliation, or the naturally stronger party must prevail. We refuse to make such reconciliation our priority, and we back the historically weaker side.", is just about all anyone needs to know about the current situation in Afghanistan.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 05/29/2012 - 8:00am

In reply to by Bill C.


The military only sets conditions. It can set conditions for continued suppression of popular will, or it can set conditions for the future expression of popular will. But all it can do is set conditions.

The Brits were at the point where they recognized the cost of empire exceeded the benfits, so were politically willing to divest of such bad investments. I suspect that is a realization that developed over the course of the Emergency based on a wide range of factors having little to do with Malaya directly.

The US, on the other hand, does not see ourself as being so obviously inappropriate as a colonial power (yet perhaps equally inappropriate in our own right, that others see clearly, but that we cannot see in our selves). So we continue to employ our military in the name of liberty, but for the purpose of shaping conditions and picking the sides we think will best secure our own interests in any particular situation. We have not yet hit the brink that WWII brought Britain to. We have not yet had that "face down in the gutter, come to Jesus" momemnt that most addicts have to have before they can see themselves as clearly as others have for years, and begin the path to a new viability. I'd like to see us make that turn-around early, but current indicators are that we are set to stay on this ride for the duration. Inertia is a powerful force.

To credit colonial manipulation and military occupation as forces of goodness and light is a good bit of not being able to see the bit of dust in another's eye due to the plank in one's own.

Bill C.

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 11:31pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Why is it that the British Colonial Office could, at the time of the Malayan Emergency, work toward giving up control of the country, expand inclusion to previously excluded ethnic groups, ultimately relinquish sovereign control altogether and -- via these and/or other such acts -- quell the insurgency?

Could the answer be:

Because the extensive state and societal transformation/westernization/alignment-with-western-interests work -- done by the British Military et. al in the two or more centuries before -- had largely been completed by the time of the Malayan Emergency?

Considering these two or more centuries of hard state and societal transformation/westernization work -- done by the British Military et. al prior to the time of the Malayan Emergency -- can we still call what occurs after such an extensive forced-assimilation period "self-determination?"

Thus, should the credit for ending the Malayan Emergency, after all is said and done, indeed go to the British Military who -- in conjunction with other British state and societal transformation/westernization/assimilation forces and over a very long period of time -- had set the stage so that the British Colonial Office might confidently act as it did when it did?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 6:50pm

In reply to by Bill C.


I think it is as simple as this: In both the Cold War and in modern conflicts tied to the events of 9/11 we act to sustain or put in place governmental structures that we think will best secure our national interests as defined in those respective times in locations we deemed vital.

No crusade to tranform society, at least not at the strategic level. Those were just packaging and programs adobted by those tasked to secure such governments over the protests of much of their own populaces.

I don't think this is some big secret or conspiracy; securing ones interests at the expense of others is what states do. I think we failed to learn the lessons of the Cold War in terms of what works and what does not work at the strateigic level in these types of governance manipulation operations (case in point the persistent focus on what the British Military did in Malaya rather than upon the much more decisive actions by the colonial office to give up control of the country, work to expand inclusion to previously excluded ethnic groups, and ultimately to relenquish sovereign control altogether). We focus on the gun fight and ascribe effects to actions that in truth had little effect. Take Anbar as well. We'd most likely still be in a do-loop of Clear-Clear-Clear if we had not bought and begged for the support of the Sunni tribal leadership to abandon AQ's UW campaign and to trust that we were their better option for a place in the future Iraq. Yet we took that tactic free of such strategic prep-work to Afghanistan and expected similar results.

Yes, US National Security Strategy has adopted the LOO that we make ourselves safer when we make others more like us. That applies a line of "logic" that I personally find very dangerous and wholly lacking in any foundation of sound theory or historic example. I prefer to believe that we actually make ourselves safer when we are perceived as the nation that supports and allows others to be more like themselves. But we have become far to ideological in recent years to adopt anything so sensible and so grounded in our founding principles as a nation.

So, no, Bill, I do not think we set out to modernize the world, those are just the tactics and narrative we have adopted in pursuit of securing our interests as we define them.

Bill C.

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 2:34pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

COL (ret) Jones:

Would you say that -- much as in the Cold War and same-same re: the War on Terror today -- the reason that we "refuse to make reconciliation our priority" and may "back the historically weaker side" is because our purpose and priority during the Cold War -- and our purpose and priority again today -- is not to achieve "stability" but, rather, to bring about the transformation of states and societies along western lines? Herein, the United States understanding, yesterday and today, that it must accept a certain degree of risk and instability so as to achieve this goal and purpose?

Thus, the risks and instability associated with the strategy of "containment" re: the former USSR -- and the risks and instability associated with the strategy of "engagement and enlargement" re: the lesser and remaining outlier states and societies today -- both are acknowledged, up front, as the price that may need to be paid so that we might achieve our overall/overarching goal and objective (to wit: the transformation of states and societies along western lines)?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 8:03am

I can find pros and cons in the positions on both sides of this debate. Most likely because the line between the debating parties is drawn between the wrong issues. We will need to get to a smarter understanding of the problem before we can have a more effective discussion of possible solutions.

As to Iraq, the point that seems so lost on the "Surginistas" as to why their concept appeared to work in Iraq, but is falling so short in Afghanistan is because what they thought worked in Iraq was not the key to the temporary successes that we accomplished there at all.

It was just dumb blind luck that our functional and physical boundaries for dividing up the area of operation coincided with the distinct "purposes for action" of the various aspects of the insurgency and guerrilla warfare that we faced. SOF and Conventional forces just happened to line up on and solve distinct aspects of the multi-party problem.

The Kurds were (are) a separatist movement, so we applied a separatist solution (giving them something they could call their own) that proved effective in that sector. The Sunni were a resistance movement, so we applied an approach of buying off tribal leaders and thereby removing the proverbial thorn from paw of that segment of the populace. AQ came to Iraq to conduct UW among that same Sunni populace, and focused CT against this external party proved effective in beating them down, just as the ineffectiveness of the guerrilla fighters that they recruited from various insurgent populaces across the region helped sour their influence with the Sunni resistance. Iran waged a more subtle UW campaign with the Shia populace and their revolutionary insurgency, and as counterrevolutionary approaches began to take effect Iran opted to wait for a more opportune time to press their agenda. Essentially "divide and conquer," or more accurately, "divide and suppress" as little is resolved, but we did manage to quell the violence long enough and to the degree necessary to make an honorable exit.

Compare this to Afghanistan, where we refuse to recognize the clear distinction between the revolutionary insurgency between the Northern Alliance-based government that we elevated into power and whose monopoly we helped codify and protect, and the Taliban-affiliated populace/governance in exile in Pakistan. This is the beating heart of the insurgency and until the revolutionary issues are resolved there can be no true stability. There must either be some form of compromise and reconciliation, or the naturally stronger party must prevail. We refuse to make such reconciliation our priority, and we back the historically weaker side. I don't see how we get to military success given that political/policy framework.

Then there is the Resistance Insurgency across Afghanistan that we attempt Clear-Hold-Build into submission. The thing with a resistance, however, is that the harder one presses upon it, the harder it presses back. One can certainly trim off the current fighters, but such actions only drive the roots of the resistance deeper into the soil of the populace, only to reemerge stronger than ever at some point down the road.

Our actions created and preserve the revolution, and then served to grow the resistance as well. We refuse to recognize the causal effects of our actions, and we cling to illogical concepts of "AQ Sanctuary" that make it as impossible for us to leave as it is for us to win; at least as we have currently framed the problem.

I am reminded of a favorite insight from Albert Einstein: "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." He was not being flippant, he was simply pointing out that too often we are blocked from getting to clear thinking on some topic by deeply flawed concepts we have wrongly assumed as "facts."

It is time to "change the facts" in Afghanistan, as only then will we be able to get to a more effective theory that can lead to a reasonably sustainable, more natural, Afghan stability.